This is the twelfth round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “L”.
Readers have until the publication of the next round of stories (about two weeks between rounds) to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the second of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “L” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — Gary Broxson
(3,392 words – approx. reading time: about 13 minutes based on 265 WPM)
I met him in Afghanistan. I was taped up to a tent pole in the middle of the desert, eighty miles west of Kabul. When he peeled back the tent flap doorway, I saw the silhouette of a giant blotting out the blazing sun. I couldn’t speak; my mouth wore a rectangle of OD green 100 mph tape. My arms and legs were wrapped up tightly around the center pole, my feet dangling six inches off the dirt floor.
Gunnery Sergeant LeGrant, also known as Staff Sergeant, Buck Sergeant, Corporal, and Private LeGrant (he had a problem holding onto his rank) looked around the makeshift barracks. The few Marines still in their cots turned away so they would not have to meet his glare. The giant scanned me up and down. When he got to my feet he smiled. It was a big smile that transformed him from a fiend to a friend. “Boots,” was all he said. When he unsheathed a huge, curved Gurkha knife from his belt I was all eyeballs. Then he laughed, deep and meaningful, revealing a shiny gold tooth and began surgically slicing the tape away from the pole.
The name ‘Boots’ stuck. That’s what they call me now, and that’s probably what they’ll chisel on my stone. Deploying directly from the School of Infantry in Parris Island, the Clothing Issue Facility (CIF) did not carry size 14 desert boots; they would have to be specially ordered. In the meantime, I wore my Corcoran jump boots. They were spit shined to a high gloss, but polished black leather boots had no place in the Middle East and I was starting to feel the same way.
After Gunny cut me down, he went to his foot locker and pulled out a huge pair of dusty desert boots. He tossed them to me without a word and departed the tent.
“Sorry, Boots,” a Lance Corporal said from across the tent. “No harm, no foul, right? We tape up all the FNGs. Just our little way of welcoming you to the sandbox.”
“You couldn’t just say hello or drop off a bunt cake?” I joked, after carefully peeling away the strip of tape covering my mouth.
I sat on my designated cot and took off my Corcorans. Gunny’s sweat-stiffened desert boots were size 16 and swallowed my feet.
“Might want to double up on your socks,” suggested Lance Corporal Jansen.
I did and it worked. “Who was that?” I asked motioning toward the half open tent flap.
“That was Gunny LeGrant. He’s your new Platoon Sergeant. They say he swam all the way from the Virgin Islands to join up with the Marines.
“Big deal,” I said. “I had to ride my Huffy all the way across Hunting Park in West Philly to get to my Marine recruiter’s office. In the rain,” I added.
Lance Corporal Jansen laughed. “Come on, smart ass, I’ll show you where the chow hall is.”
It didn’t take long to get into the daily rhythm of the desert. Up at 0430; PT before it got too hot; eat a cold breakfast if the MKT had received rations; PMCS our weapons and vehicles; roll out with a supply convoy; come back to camp in the afternoon and dose through an after action review; take care of details around camp (trash and shit burning, sand bag filling, checking coms and concertina wires, fire watch, tent maintenance…); a little free time in the evening; hit the rack; get up and do it all over again.
I was new and I didn’t mind, but some of the old timers started bellyaching about the long, monotonous days. Word got up to the chaplain and he had the ear of the Commander. Chaplain Ross materialized in our bay tent one evening unannounced. We all jumped up and yelled ‘Officer on deck!’ He waved us down, appearing somewhat embarrassed by our overt show of respect. He explained that he was stopping in for a health and welfare inspection; a morale check. We sat there in silence until Gunny LeGrant stormed into the tent, perhaps wondering why an officer was messing with his Marines.
The chaplain explained his presence to Gunny and asked if he could pass out bibles. Gunny nodded and the chaplain’s assistant began handing out the good books. He offered Gunny a camouflage covered bible. Gunny took it, fanned it open to the middle, ripped it in half and returned a portion of it to the young Marine. The chaplain looked up at Gunny, his jaw dropped.
“You can keep the New Testament. Marines don’t turn the other cheek,” Gunny said. Then he walked out and left the Chaplain to chat with us about our vaginal problems.
After that incident, the Old Man declared that we needed a stress reliever. Lt Colonel Farris, our Battalion Commander, announced that we would play football for some R and R. There would be a week of practice in the evenings and a tournament would be played on July 4th. The enlisted jarheads would play against the leatherneck officers.
Gunny didn’t know anything about football but by way of rank and size, he became our coach. Every evening we ran laps around camp, always alert to snipers, and did pushups till dark. We also cleared rocks from a wide patch of desert that we christened Semper fi-eld (the pun looked really cool on the flyers we posted. But it was too hard to pronounce so we ended up just calling it Semper Field).
Sure, many of the Marines complained about the extra work and practice, but ultimately we were all excited about the big game. Some had played in high school and two guys had played a little in junior college. With everyone’s input, we came together as a team by the end of the week. We actually had a pretty good crew and a pretty good chance. It was the talk of the tent and we were all gung ho.
Game day. The Old Man blew the whistle and the officers kicked off. Thinking back on the game now, I can’t recall any particular strategy. Every play seemed to rush two yards and end up in a cloud of dust and blood. When Corporal Taylor crawled out from under the scrum with a dislocated shoulder, Coach Gunny took his place on defense. Like I said, Gunny was a giant, the biggest blackest man I’d ever met, but he didn’t know much about football and he didn’t take well to the trash talking at the line of scrimmage.
Lieutenant Philip Epstein, a big tuffy from the Bronx, informed Gunny that his mother was in fact not from the Virgin Islands but from a place he often visited called Whore Island and that Gunny’s own parental heritage was very much in question, indicating that he was Gunny’s daddy, Mon…or words to that effect.
The next time Lt Epstein ran the football, Gunny caught him midfield. The collision was spectacular; Gunny knocked him onto his fourth point of contact. Lt Epstein felt the wrath of Gunny’s tattooed elbow. It shattered his jaw and he fumbled the football. I picked it up and ran like I stole it for a touchdown. I slipped right out of my borrowed, over-sized boots and did a silly hot-sand end zone dance in my socks. It would be the only score of the game, but it was enough. The remainder of the match was permanently postponed to look for Lt Epstein’s teeth on or near the 40 yard line.
Reluctantly, the Battalion Commander made good on the winning prize—Beer. Well, almost. General Order Number One dictated that alcohol was contrary to good order and discipline, especially in high-vis, overseas deployments like ours. So that evening, the D-Fac deuce delivered a water buffalo full of ice and O’Doul’s brew. We knew it only had .04% alcohol, it said so on the label, but we didn’t care. It was beer and we were the champions.
Who knew that Gunny could actually play that song on a ukulele? Around a bonfire of UV ChemLights, we drank oceans of O’Doul’s and sang that Queen classic loudly and way off key, serenading the officers that were kitty-licking their wounds across camp. We all wore our helmets and NODs as we sat in a platoon circle around the otherwise invisible flames. Looking through the night vision goggles, we saw a ghostly green glow that lit up our night and lifted our spirits.
In my euphoria, I couldn’t help ask the question that had been on my mind since that first day. “Gunny LeGrant, why don’t you come up on the net and tell us how you really became a United States Marine?” We all had a story, but I knew from the grapevine that Gunny’s would be more than epic.
Gunny LeGrant flipped up his NODs and gazed into the reality of darkness and the invisible fire that refused to heat our circle. He stopped playing the ukulele, took a long pull on his 14th O’Doul’s, and began to speak. “My father was Cacique, the chieftain of our tribe on St Croix. When I was a boy, my father left the Virgin Islands to fight in Vietnam. He swore he would return someday.
“My mother would tell Bible stories to me every night before bed. She read from the Old Testament and I learned to love the kings, warriors, and prophets of old and I pictured my father fighting Philistines far, far away. Each day I would climb Mt Rainmaker and search the seas for my father’s return. When he did not come home, I began to swim out further and further into the waters hoping to meet the great whale that might swallow me up and take me to America.
“One day, miles from my shores, I met Jonah’s great fish and it was made of iron. It rose up from the deep and surfaced in front of me. I followed it for hours, swimming with all my might, but it finally sailed into the sun and I was far from home. Just when I was about to perish in the ocean, a helicopter descended down from heaven and pulled me up.
“Marine aviators flew me to a city-size ship where they took me in. I did not speak much English then, so they did not know where to return me, so they allowed me to remain on the ship until we arrived in America.”
Just as Gunny was about to tell the rest of his story, a Private from Battalion invaded our chem-fire circle. He handed a note to Gunny, and because he wore no goggles, he passed it to me to read.
The message read, ‘Report to Lt Colonel Farris ASAP!’
I don’t know exactly how that conversation went down, but I know the results. When Gunny LeGrant returned, he began packing his ruck and duffle bag.
“Gunny,” I announced my presence, “I’ve come to give you your boots back. I heard you are leaving,” I said from the entrance to his small tent.
“Keep’em Boots. Where I’m going, I won’t need desert personnel carriers.”
By morning, he was gone.
Word got around through the ‘Lance Corporal underground’ and we pieced together what had happened to Gunny. He was going to OCS, Officer Candidate School. The Old Man had given him a choice, get Ninja Punched and lose his rank again for striking an officer, or fill the open officer billet he’d created with his elbow by attending OCS and returning to the Corps as a gentleman.
Lance Corporal Thomas overhead some of the louder portions of the conversation from outside the door. He told us that the Old Man said he knew that Lt Phil Epstein was an ass, but he was also a good officer that didn’t deserve a broken jaw, and he would have to be replaced. He told Gunny that he would have to get civilized or get out.
Gunny had argued that he couldn’t even spell Lieutenant and didn’t have a day of college but Lt Colonel Farris told him that DOD had granted him an education waiver and that the cadre there would help him by abbreviating LT. Apparently there were exactly zero Caribbean-American officers in the Corps and this was an era of ethnic inclusion—even in the Marines. Orders were cut and faxed, and Gunny was off to Knife and Fork school in Quantico, Virginia.
Two years later I tagged Gunny LeGrant on social media and we met up again; he was now a First Lieutenant and I was a Corporal. He seemed to have lost the twinkle in his eye and his hair was peppered with gray and cut high and tight. My unit had returned from Afghanistan and we were redeployed to Washington, D.C. where ‘peaceful’ protestors were threatening the status quo. I found him near the Vietnam Veteran Memorial—the Wall. We sat at a café there and had lunch. We were both technically on duty, so we ordered O’Doul’s and caught up on old memories and old Marines.
Lt LeGrant recounted the day we met, in the tent. He said he almost dubbed me Daniel, that I had reminded him of the biblical Daniel in the Lions’ den. The way I stayed so quiet, surrounded by those sleeping Marines—the lions. Then he had seen my huge black jump boots.
I reminded him that I was quiet only because they had taped up my mouth. He laughed a little at that. It seemed to me had almost forgotten how.
LT told me he had mostly been riding a desk since finishing OCS. Occasionally, he taught candidates hand-to-hand combat skills. Even these tactics had been watered down, he said. We might as well be pillow fighting, he had sighed.
I asked him if he had found his father’s name on the Wall. “Nooo,” he winked. “I told you my father had gone off to fight in Vietnam, but I never told you for which side.” This time I laughed.
“That’s what I love about this country,” he added. “You get to pick your own battles.”
I thought about that for a while until our shared silence was interrupted by a commotion just outside the Lincoln Memorial. Buses were unloading protestors and crowds were forming at the footsteps of the monument.
“Mount up, Boots!” Lt LeGrant said, and we took off in the direction of danger.
We wore our fatigues but we weren’t armed. By the time we arrived the Park Police officers were being overwhelmed. I sprinted to the top of the steps ahead of the rioters and kicked the first man in the chest with my size 14; he fell backwards and took several masked members with him. The irony of this moment was not lost on me. I was a solitary white kid, standing my ground between a mob of Black Life Matters rioters and the Great Emancipator. FOX News would have feasted on this red meat.
The crowd swelled and moved as one up the steps—then it parted. Like a black Moses, Lt LeGrant cut a swath through the hordes of humanity. Bodies flew left and right as he kicked, chopped, head-butted, and tossed aside his attackers.
LT was breathing hard by the time he made it up to me. We stood there, shoulder to shoulder, patch to patch, and waited for worst. Then we heard it—the worst. It was the guttural growl of a chainsaw cranking up. We had watched the news, we knew the M.O. These radicals meant to take Lincoln’s head as a trophy, a symbol, a statement that anarchy was the new norm.
We looked at each other and Lt LeGrant laughed, really laughed. Then he reached back and patted the hilt of the Gurkha knife I had seen on my first day in the box. He was no longer an officer and a gentleman, he was a Marine—a warrior.
We backed up further until we were shaded below the entablature that covered the sitting statue of Abraham Lincoln. From above us ANTIFA protestors rappelled down from the roof. These insurgents were clearly trained and dangerous. They dropped to the marbled floor and began their assault on the 16th president. They sprayed paint on the monument; black-facing Lincoln into a social media parody.
There were too many to fight off. As soon as we dragged one down, two more would replace them. The crowd began to surge, filling the stage where Lincoln and his modern assassins played out their ruinous game. They crawled up onto Lincoln’s lap, like spiders with daddy issues. Hundreds, perhaps thousands filled the exhibition hall wielding terror and torches.
Exhausted, Lt LeGrant looked at me as we fought. “Take this,” he ordered, handing me the curved Ghurka knife. “Cut me two long ropes.”
I caught the knife and hacked off two lengths of rappel rope.
As he crush-punched a protestor, he yelled, “Wrap them around the two center pillars!”
By now the sounds of the chainsaw were getting louder, but I quickly did as I was ordered. I coiled each rope around the center columns and secured the ends with a bowline knot.
Lt LeGrant met me between the massive beams and said, “I’ll take it from here, Boots.” He picked up each loose end of the ropes and twisted them around his massive forearms.
“LT, what the hell are you doing?” I screamed, as the masses swarmed around us, completely obscuring the sacred sculpture.
“I’m about to go medieval on these punks,” he said, and then cinched up the slack in the two ropes.
I stood in front of LT attempting to ward off rioters that pelted him with shoes, bottles and closed fists. He only smiled, now revealing the gold tooth I hadn’t seen since our days in the desert. He was a rock, an ebony statue, their blows bounced off. Veins in his neck jutted like rifle barrels, his arms and wrists were wrought iron, his eyes tilted up to heaven.
The ropes tightened and scored the outer fluting. But nothing happened. I heard him whisper, “Lord, give me strength one more time. Let me die with these Philistines.”
A puff of white powder shot out from the base of a pillar as it shifted ever so slightly. Then a bone-grating sound as marble scraped marble. Through clenched teeth, I heard him say, “Get out Boots, that’s an order!” Then he kicked me from behind and sent me sprawling down the steps.
From below I turned and looked back. Lt LeGrant groaned and pulled with all his might. The 100-year-old columns seemed to slightly bow inward. He tugged harder and an entire section of one shaft slid with the force. Then, like a house of cards, the columns buckled and the entire structure collapsed in slow motion. Among the crashing and screaming I heard a peculiar sound—laughing.
This can all be found on YouTube of course. Both sides used the clip to claim a win or make a political point. The Left says LT brought the building down to show he was anti-slavery and anti-establishment. The Right claims he was a good Devil Dog following his Commander-in-chief’s orders, right down to his death. They even pinned a Congressional Medal of Honor on his corpse.
I think I know the real reason he did it, and it had nothing to do with the puppet masters. I believe he was indeed following orders, but not from his chain of command. Not even from the Old Man, but most likely from The Old Man himself, he loved the God of Global Destruction.
Whatever the reason, it seemed to work. After that hot, crazy summer of hate, things settled down. People stepped back and looked at what they had done to themselves, to their families, to their country. Without any big speeches, new rules or curfews, we all just started picking up the pieces together and slowly began rebuilding our fractured society. I think we finally got tired of hate.
As usual, the Marine Corps needed a written statement about the event. I wrote up the official after action report and attached it to this account. See below:
In the beginning…
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